How race plays a role in 'X-Men: First Class'

OPINION - You don't need to be a lifelong comic fanboy to notice the parallels between the universe inhabited by fictional mutants, and the real world circumstances of racial and ethnic minorities....

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

It’s fitting that X-Men: First Class the reboot of the iconic comic franchise about mutants born with a genetic anomaly that grants them super-powers, is narrated in the early 1960s. Although the movie gracefully glosses over the events of the turbulent civil rights movement, it still succeeds in capturing the essence of what the movement exemplified: a group of people’s struggle for dignity and equality in the face of unremitting hostility.

The movie itself is resonant with racial overtones and “sexual politics”:; perhaps an inevitable result of the film’s Kennedy-era backdrop. The focus on a group of oppressed mutants who struggle with acceptance — has afforded some in the blogosphere the opportunity to dissect the movie’s messages in search of politically correct imagery. Seek and ye shall find, as the saying goes: a debate has erupted online about whether Magneto (a.k.a. Erik Lehnsherr), one of the movie’s main characters, was correct in his embrace of a nihilistic worldview.

A Holocaust survivor and self-declared master of magnetism, Magneto adopts a separatist hard line on the subject of humans and mutants coexisting peacefully. His perspective contrasts sharply with that of the peaceful, Gandhi-like Charles Xavier, who believes fervently that mutants can be accepted by the culture at large.

You don’t need to be a lifelong comic fanboy to notice the parallels between the universe inhabited by fictional mutants, and the real world circumstances of racial and ethnic minorities. Given that the X-Men were created in 1962, during the height of the struggle to square the rights of blacks with the Constitutional freedoms enjoyed by the majority, the allegories between the warring factions of mutant-dom and those of the civil rights movement are fairly obvious.

It’s not an accident that Magneto’s angry and often extreme approach to mutant-human relations bears echoes of Malcolm X’s strident approach to black equality. By contrast, Xavier’s conciliatory ways are virtually identical to the sonorous nonviolence championed by Martin Luther King Jr. Like Malcolm and MLK, both Xavier and Magneto agree on the final destination, yet both travel starkly different roads to get there. In some minds, it begs an obvious question: which method is more effective?

There is a natural temptation to moralize about and read social commentary into comic book movies, which really should be judged on their entertainment value. For better or worse, that impulse is augmented substantially by the special circumstances and the racial (and biological) diversity that suffuse the X-Men, who are the comic book equivalent of a Benetton commercial. Given that mutants themselves are a collection of misfits that come in all races and ethnicities, modern standards of political correctness shouldn’t apply.
And yet that doesn’t stop people from trying, as the similarities between mutants and minorities are near-irresistible. Just as blacks were once brutally suppressed by individuals and institutions alike, the inhabitants of the X-Men’s universe endure fear and repression at the hands of a world that judges them by their physical attributes rather than the content of their character.

In the comic version, the government spearheads several attempts to force mutants and other super-beings to register with authorities.

In the mother of all civil rights metaphors, the final effort to track mutants rent the super-hero community asunder, and nearly destroyed life-long relationships. In certain respects, those storylines all but validated Magneto’s uncompromising approach to establishing a mutant community separate from the rest of the human race. By comparison, Xavier’s “we are the world” disposition looks weak and ineffectual, particularly in the face of government initiatives that ultimately undermine the rights of mutants to leave peacefully.

Much like Malcolm X’s incendiary style during his rise to a cultural icon, Magneto is prone to bombast and militancy. This of course accomplishes little beyond leading to mutual hostility and disdain from the world at large. Fiery rhetoric can help galvanize the masses and help the oppressed feel empowered, it can also work at cross-purposes.

The late Manning Marable’s magnum opus on Malcolm X underscored a key reality about Malcolm’s evolution into a civil rights icon: conciliation wins results — and respect. Had he, or for that matter the majority of the civil rights movement, wedded themselves to Manichean, violent worldview, the movement toward full and equal rights would likely have ended differently.

Magneto’s fire-and-brimstone methods, while fictional, are equally instructive. The plot of X-Men: First Class generates subtle tensions and differences of opinion that put Magneto and Xavier (again, much like Malcolm and MLK) on the inevitable path toward confrontation. By the end of the movie, it’s not that hard to tell where the story will end up.

However gratifying it might be in the short-run, Magneto’s approach is simply not the ideal. Wanton violence and separatism for its own sake rarely accomplish anything, and the empirical evidence bears this out. Fans of the X-Men comic will recall that Magneto’s heavy-handed tactics ended up branding him as a terrorist, thus placing his race in even more peril than they started. Not until he renounces his old ways, and reconciles his philosophy with the need to work within the system, does he actually see improvement in the race’s circumstances, even if they are limited strides.